by Scott Smith

Peel away the scary headlines about bears in backyards or coyotes coming to get your dog and the crux of the matter is pretty simple: Because of ever-expanding human populations and ever-shrinking natural habitats, animals are increasingly coming into contact with people as they try to eke out a space to live and food to eat.

It’s not the animals’ fault, of course. Indeed, you have to give some species credit for not only surviving but thriving as they manage to adapt to living in a world dominated by development and pollution and in which wildlife agencies still justify using hunting as a management tool. But for every white-tailed deer who has found a home in modern suburbia or rock pigeon that coos in a city park, countless other species are hanging on by a whisker, a wing, a prayer.

Americans, and U.S. society as a whole, are slowly becoming better “friends of animals.” But first a reality check about just how far the goal posts have moved in valuing and accommodating wildlife: Before the U.S. plunged headlong into its manifest destiny three centuries ago, 4 billion passenger pigeons filled our spacious skies, 30 million bison grazed on amber waves of grain, 2 million wolves prowled the purple mountain majesties and 50,000 grizzlies roamed the fruited plains.

So when we talk about adopting policies and mindsets that help people live harmoniously with native wildlife, we have to recognize that in most cases we are dealing with a mere fraction of the animals who once lived on the land and in the sea we’ve since overwhelmed. That we can see and appreciate any wildlife is something to celebrate, not fear or be conflicted about.

Now for the good news: The most direct source of human harm to animals—the barrel of a hunter’s gun—is in inexorable decline.

Hunting participation in the U.S. peaked in 1982, at 17 million hunters. Hunter numbers have since declined to 11.5 million; less than 4 percent of the national population. In contrast, according to the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, the number of people wildlife-watching— observing and photographing wildlife —account for the biggest increases in outdoor activities, surging 20 percent from 2011 to 2016, to 86 million participants.

Unfortunately, every year in the U.S. more than 1 million collisions between vehicles and large animals occur, killing countless animals and causing thousands of injuries to humans and 200 deaths, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

However, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which President Biden signed into law on Nov. 15, funds a wildlife crossing safety program that will provide $350 million over five years for the construction of bridges, tunnels, culverts, fencing and other infrastructure that will allow wildlife safe passage under or over roads. Such projects, which many states began implementing over the ​​past few years, are proven to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, lowering the number of human injuries and deaths and improving the health of wildlife populations.

Case in point: A wildlife corridor project along a deadly, 11-mile stretch of highway near Keystone, Colo., led to a 90% reduction in animal-vehicle collisions. The road-improvement effort, which was completed in 2016 and included wildlife fencing, two overpasses and five underpasses, created safe passage for mule deer, moose, bear, bighorn sheep and mountain lions. Studies have shown that the corridor has a 96% usage rate by mule deer.

At press time, it was announced that the largest wildlife crossing in the world, extending over 10 lanes of highway through the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California, is expected to break ground this spring with an estimated cost of $78 million. The project will benefit bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, gray foxes and many more in an effort to expand wildlife preservation in the state.

Other ways to avoid injurious interactions with animals are almost as varied as the species involved, and Friends of Animals applauds the use of science-based research to protect wildlife habitat and make it safer for animals to live in areas people now dominate. And while our legal victories on behalf of animals are crucial, so are FoA’s educational outreach efforts to help individuals adapt their behaviors so they can be better neighbors to all wildlife.

“It’s a matter of attitude,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “If a skunk wanders through your backyard, there’s no need to sound the alarm bells. It’s a kneejerk reaction to call an animal control officer.

These are all animals we’ve co-evolved with who now have to cope with having less habitat and sharing most of what remains with humans. While some people consider wild animals inconvenient and feel the need to manage them, managing human behavior to minimize interactions is the most effective way to keep humans and wildlife safe.”

Spring is the best time of year to increase the wildlife friendliness of your own backyard. Plant native flowers and shrubs that have evolved defenses against deer; they’re better for pollinators, too. Forego chemical pesticides and herbicides; the widespread use of glyphosate (Roundup) and neonicotinoid systemic insecticides are decimating bees, birds and other beneficial species. Never use rodenticides; mouse and rat poisons that contain super-toxic anticoagulants kill a wide range of non-targeted animals, from cats and dogs to hawks and mountain lions.

Remember Barry, the barred owl living in Central Park who captivated New Yorkers before she was killed by a vehicle last September? A necropsy revealed she had dangerous, “potentially lethal” levels of rat poison in her system. The level of poison in Barry’s liver could have impaired her ability to fly and possibly avoid the collision.

“Anticoagulants kill the very wildlife that help us control rats and mice,” said Lisa Owens Viani, director of Raptors Are The Solution, in campaigning for a new California law that places tighter restrictions on the use of anticoagulant rodenticides.

That law took effect in 2021, and shows that advocacy for new rules aimed at helping animals live without human cruelty does work. So, rather than tolerate your town’s ineffectual harassment policies against geese, urge your community to invest in effective goose-poop cleanup equipment. Seek local bans on feeding wildlife, which disrupts animals’ natural behavior and too often leads them to trouble. Challenge the long-held belief that regulated hunting is a valid conservation tool for controlling animals considered to be pests or overpopulated. Killing is not conservation—protection of habitat and of threatened and endangered species is. And most of all, push to preserve open space in your community—to be a true friend of animals, it’s the least, and most, we can do.